Retrospective: “A Wrinkle in Time”, by Madeline L’Engle

There are a lot of posts I plan to write. There’s one about the extreme importance a single line can make in a work, one that was a Screwtape-style review of “The Martian”, and my big review of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle from beginning to end (though I have yet to read “Avalon”).

And yet, as I finally go through serious work to get the novel I’ve had in my head for such a long time finally onto paper, I somehow come back to this book: “A Wrinkle in Time”. Perhaps the most superversive story ever written.

Here’s why I’m writing about this: “A Wrinkle in Time” is the first sci-fi story I ever read. That is because I picked it up in middle school thinking it was a fantasy. It is also, to this day, one of the very best. And so, as I plan my own novel, I find myself looking back at this story and jealously thinking, How the heck did she come up with this thing?

There is absolutely nothing I have read that is even remotely similar to “A Wrinkle in Time” – absolutely nothing, unless you count the sequels (which are generally quite good themselves – in fact, expect a post one day about the hugely underrated “A Wind in the Door”). It is in a very real sense unique. For those who don’t know the plot, it is deceptively simple but hides a wild uniqueness underneath it. Meg Calvin’s father had disappeared years ago, and nobody knows where he went. Then three mysterious women show up, announce that there is such a thing as a tesseract, and whisk off Meg, her young and brilliant brother Charles Wallace, and her friend and love interest Calvin O’Keefe to go traipsing through the universe looking for him.

You can’t really summarize the plot. It’s just too bizarre. To give you an idea, at one point Meg is rescued from the control of a giant, sentient brain and brought to live under the care of a blind monster who goes by the name of Auntie Beast. At another point, the protagonists are accidentally brought into a two-dimensional world and nearly suffocate to death – and this has absolutely nothing to do with the plot and is never mentioned again. And at ANOTHER point, it turns out that one of the main characters is really a fallen star who looks like a flying centaur and is just masquerading as a human woman.

And that’s not even why the book is worth reading! It’s the characters. Madeline L’Engle has a gift of characterization that I’ve only ever seen in one other author, the brilliant C.S. Lewis. L’Engle’s characters almost immediately jump off the page at you, real and solid.

This is a very rare gift for an author, and a very powerful one. This is not, mind, me saying that there are no authors to her equal in writing about characters. T.H. White is magnificent on this point in “The Once and Future King”, particularly in “The Ill-Made Knight” and “The Candle in the Wind”. And Tolkien, of course, is pretty much in a league of his own on everything. But with L’Engle Mrs. Whatsit was a real person the moment she stepped into the Calvins’ kitchen and emptied her boots of water. Charles Wallace becomes his own man after his first conversation with Meg. Meg’s father needs practically a sentence to establish himself in our heads. And, of course, IT is one of the most sinister, diabolical villains ever devised.

Modern young adult fiction is full of stories about children in dystopias, but for my money few are equal to L’Engle’s Camazotz. The brilliance of Camazotz in’t that it’s overwhelmingly original. It’s that it’s chillingly simple. We don’t need to know the complex backstory or politics of Camazotz. We don’t need to learn about any secret resistance movements or about the complex bureaucracy heading the government. As soon as we see the eerie sameness of Camazotz we know what the problem is. And IT serves as every problem the book will ever need, and then some.

I know it’s silly to talk about spoiling a book this old, but…I really don’t want to. All I’ll say about the ending is that it is probably the most pure and uncynical testament to the awe-inspiring, evil-crushing, immense power of love I have ever seen.

My novel (or the idea of it) is a piece of Arthurian fiction, about the return of King Arthur in a distant future. It is not science fiction, but fantasy. And it is absolutely nothing like “A Wrinkle in Time”, nor should it be. And yet, I still look at that book with a pang of jealousy, and I still try and take lessons from it.

Probably the best one I got from the book, and that I also learned in the brilliant game “To the Moon”, is that the best way to make incredibly dangerous, earth-shattering events relatable¬† to the reader (and to your characters) is to wrap them up in something that matters to your characters on a personal level. Thus, while the book is partially about the defeat of the Dark Thing enveloping the universe and the defeat of IT, it is really the story of the rescue of Meg’s father – and this is what we really care about. This is what makes the book matter to us. It’s not enough – not really – to know that the Dark Thing is very bad. We need to see how it affects Meg, personally. This added dimension is really what makes this book an all-time classic where its sequels are not.

Oh yeah, and it starts with the words “It was a dark and stormy night” unironically, and gets away with it. That counts for something too.

I suppose what made me think about this is that it occurred to me that the world could use more books as bizarre and uncynical and wonderful as “A Wrinkle in Time”, and I’m not the guy to write them. I’m not sure anybody is. In fact, it’s so original I can’t even think of anybody who tried to imitate it. You can’t – and that’s the beauty of it. If we could, it wouldn’t be “A Wrinkle in Time”. And the world would be a worse place for it.

  • You had me until the ante-ante-penultimate line.

    You ought not be discouraging storytellers from trying to write bizarre and uncynical and wonderful tales for young folks – or anyone.

    This is a mark that even if you fail to hit it, makes you a better artist. Trust me on this one.

    • Anthony M

      You are misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m discouraging nobody from trying anything.